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Willie Nelson `On the Road Again’
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 27, 1999.
All rights reserved.
Magic happens when Willie Nelson steps on stage. Several
years ago in Austin, I had the chance to catch a free Willie Nelson
show. Outdoors at Town Lake at night, a hush fell over the crowd of
3,000 when Nelson and his band got on stage. Within minutes, no one
in the crowd was talking. They were all watching, and listening. That
crowd of 3,000 had good reason to be noisy. It included a lot of aspiring
musicians of all sorts — punk rockers, metalheads, bluesmen and
women, and country rock types — in town for the South by Southwest
Music Conference/Festival. But they all shut up when a gray-bearded
man with a beat up acoustic guitar took center stage with Poi Dog
Pondering, a folk-rock ensemble that rose to national prominence in
the early 1990s.
Another audience in rapt attention is likely Wednesday, February 3,
at the State Theater, when Willie Nelson & Family, including harmonica
player Mickey Raphael and his sister Bobbie on piano and keyboards,
take the stage.
Late last year, Island Records released "Teatro," Nelson’s
newest album. Thematically, it’s a continuation of "Spirit,"
his 1996 recording for the same label. Accompanied on 11 of the tracks
by Emmylou Harris, Nelson’s voice and guitar skills are in fine form
"I feel like it’s a natural extension of the `Spirit’ album,"
Nelson says of "Teatro" in the biography accompanying his
"The new songs, such as `Everywhere I Go,’ `Annie,’ and
`I Love You All Over The World,’ show a lot of the same feel, the
Spanish feeling, of the `Spirit’ album. Though it’s certainly not
Nelson sought out New Orleans-based producer Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan,
U2, the Neville Brothers) because he brings a lot of ideas to the
recording console. (Lanois produced Harris’ 1995 Grammy-winning album,
"The Wrecking Ball.") With Nelson’s "Teatro," Lanois
added percussion to new and vintage Nelson songs, giving some material
a decidedly un-country-like flavor.
"I put together a list of songs, a hundred, two hundred songs,
and I let Daniel pick them," Nelson says in the biography. Lanois
then picked 20 of those songs and the best recorded versions —
14 songs in fact — made the cut for the album. Included in the
mix, and presumably Wednesday night’s performance, are songs Nelson
first wrote in the early 1960s, when he was still living in Nashville
and making a name for himself as a songwriter. Songs like "I Never
Cared For You," "My Own Peculiar Way," and "Darkness
On the Face of the Earth," were written during a time of growing
career success for Nelson, but also at a time when his personal life
was a shambles. Country singer Patsy Cline was having great success
with his song "Crazy," now a country music staple, at the
same time his first marriage was disintegrating.
Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in Abbott, a central
Texas farming community. Raised in a musical family, Nelson learned
gospel and hymns from his grandparents and picked up on blues in nearby
Waco and Dallas roadhouses. He later was influenced by the jazz guitarist
Django Reinhardt. The music that Nelson has created since his professional
recording career began in 1957 is an amalgamation of blues, jazz,
western swing and traditional folk music, so it’s not surprising that
it took Nashville many years to catch up to his multi-genre stylings.
He began writing his own poems when he was five, and his father presented
him with his first guitar at age six. A year later, when he was seven,
his father died. As Nelson writes in his autobiography, "Willie,"
"I didn’t know what to make of it. I think I was sad because the
whole family was weeping and moaning, everybody crying. It was an
almost unbearable situation. It’s not that I don’t think you should
grieve for loved ones who died. I just knew, even then, that there
were things more terrible than death, that death is not necessarily
bad. Maybe I knew at an early age that death is just an illusion.
Maybe I believed in reincarnation."
Since the 1962 release of "And Then I Wrote" for Liberty Records,
Nelson has recorded more than 200 albums. If there’s any theme in
his long recording career, it’s his willingness to take musical risks,
and his innate trust that his audiences will follow him and enjoy
his musical experiments. Fortunately, Nelson’s audiences have always
come along for the ride, or as he says, "sometimes you just have
to believe in what you’re doing enough to gamble on it."
Nelson was one of a handful of artists who pioneered the concept album
before the idea became fashionable: gospel albums, jazz albums, movie
soundtracks, duet albums, Christmas albums, live recordings and his
famous album of standards, the 1978 release, "Stardust."
Although he enjoyed fame within the record business through the 1960s
and early ’70s as a songwriter, his performing career on an international
scale didn’t begin to blossom until his breakthrough album, "Red
Headed Stranger," was released in 1975. Up to that point, hippies
around Austin had been showing up at his shows at the Armadillo World
Headquarters and his annual Fourth of July picnic, which he started
in 1971. After that point, Nelson’s cult-like regional following of
long-haired hippies from central Texas merged with the stodgy, Nashville
country music establishment. As a result, his career as a performer
shifted into high gear. Witness the early 1980s success of songs like
"You Were Always On My Mind" and "On The Road Again."
These days, when he’s not on the road or playing extended Las Vegas
engagements, Nelson continues to write songs from his home in Pedernales,
Texas, west of Austin. He likes listening to blues and classic country
albums, and has several hired hands who help run his Cut ‘n’ Putt
Studios, a recording studio and nine-hole golf course. He wrote his
memoirs in 1988, "Willie" (Simon & Schuster) with longtime
golf writer Bud Shrake, a fellow Austinite.
Nelson has appeared in more than 30 films, most prominently perhaps
"The Electric Horseman," with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda,
"Songwriter," with Kris Kristofferson, and the recent political
sizzler "Wag The Dog" with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman.
In the 1980s, he evolved into a champion and spokesperson for the
nation’s family farmers, holding his Farm Aid concerts in different
locations every summer.
Nelson, now 65, is repeatedly asked when and if he plans to retire.
His stock answer to that question: "All I do is play music and
golf — which one do you want me to give up?!"
— Richard J. Skelly
New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $25 to $55. Wednesday, February 3,
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